The first act of Sean O’Casey’s 1923 work (first produced by the Abbey Theatre) is so comedic in Seanachaí’s revival, one might be lulled into comfort by this familiar depiction of the amusing and witty Irish. However, like James Joyce, O’Casey’s realism is determined to deflate any romantic view of his people. These characters are heavily flawed: alcoholic, sentimental, ineffectual and cowardly. As in Dubliners, O’Casey seems to equate the country’s storied troubles with personal failings.
In an early rant, the highly educated Seumas (an excellent Jeff Christian) complains: “That’s the Irish people all over—they treat a joke as a serious thing, and a serious thing as a joke.” The serious thing here is the bleak reality of lives among Dublin’s tenement poor, where the IRA found its most willing members. The play opens with Donal Davoren (Shane Kenyon) invoking Shelley while composing a poem; this might prepare us for the impending tragedy of Irish romanticism. Donal passively assumes the identity of an IRA gunman as a way to win the love of Minnie Powell (Anne Sunseri), his pretty neighbor enamored of the nationalist cause.
It’s in the second act that O’Casey’s play gains force, moving toward the painful climax, where Donal’s opportunistic dissembling links directly to the play’s tragedy. John Mossman’s staging captures the abrupt shift, and Stephen Carmody’s vivid set design lets us know just where we are, literally and figuratively: there is a crucifix on the wall but there are no heroes in this passion play.